February 15, 2018


Bad Princess: True Tales from Behind the Tiara. By Kris Waldherr. Scholastic. $12.99.

Free as a Bird: The Story of Malala. By Lina Maslo. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     Authors of fact-based books for young readers inevitably have to confront the fact that a great deal of real life is unpleasant in the extreme – even deadly. How much of that to reveal in books aimed at children is a difficult question, and saying “it depends on the age targeted by the book” is at best an imperfect answer. However, it certainly does seem more appropriate to delve into greater detail in a book for preteen readers, such as Bad Princess, than in one aimed at ages 4-8, such as Free as a Bird. The difficulty in both cases is translating the general “more or less detail” notion into specific writing that will interest readers and draw them in without horrifying or frightening them – while at the same time not glossing over everything potentially upsetting. Kris Waldherr handles this issue in Bad Princess by framing his factual anecdotes with fairy-tale notions of what it means to be a princess and whether there is any real-world value to the notion of “happily ever after.” And despite the book’s deliberately provocative title, only some of the royals he discusses would be considered “bad” by the standards of their time or ours. For example, Waldherr writes of Princess Margaret Fredkulla of Sweden (c. 1080-1130) that she did all that was expected of her: “Arranged marriage. Check. Moving around from country to country. Check. Creating peace. Check. Ruling a kingdom. Check. Providing the king with heirs to his throne. Double check.” So by what standards might Margaret be considered “bad”? There really are none, and all Waldherr can muster is, “Was Margaret happy? Who knows?” In other cases, there is no doubt the woman portrayed was horrible. The terrifying tale of Elizabeth Báthory (1560-1614) is an example. She was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of young girl servants, perhaps more than 600 – for no certain reason, although there are longstanding rumors that she bathed in their blood to try to preserve her own youth. However, she was not a princess – a matter that Waldherr glosses over in the name of retelling her story. Waldherr also tries with little success to lighten matters up in writing about Báthory, noting that after her crimes came to light, “she was walled up for the rest of her life in her castle chamber without Internet – and hopefully without a mirror.” Waldherr never seems quite sure of what points he wants to make with his brief biographies, beyond the obvious one that real life has little in common with fairy tales as they are known today (the original tales, far darker and far scarier, are another matter). Waldherr does not delve only into tales of times long past. He discusses the “dollar princesses” of the 19th century, whose wealth allowed them to marry titled men with blue blood but little money. And he contrasts the comparative happiness of ones such as Lady Jennie Churchill (1854-1921), whose “first years of…marriage [to Lord Randolph Churchill] were blissful,” with the misery of Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877-1964), whose mother pushed her into a horrible royal union and told her, “I do the thinking, you do as you are told.” There are also pages on 20th-century princesses Diana (1961-1997) and Grace (1929-1982). Bad Princess is not all about princesses and not all about bad royals of any title, and the word “bad” is a loaded one in any case, often depending on judging people of one time by the standards of a different one. The book’s once-over-lightly treatment of royal life may counter the standards of sanitized fairy tales, if anyone actually believes them, but it sheds little light on the lives and times of the people Waldherr profiles.

     Lina Maslo’s Free as a Bird profiles a single person, Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, the youngest-ever person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (she shared the 2014 prize with Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian children's-rights activist). The difficulty Maslo faces in telling Malala’s story, and it is a major one, is that Malala won the prize because she survived a vicious attempted murder by Islamic killers determined to prevent her and other girls from committing the “crime” of becoming educated. The Taliban mass murderers, like the similar Daesh murder cult sometimes known as “Islamic State,” care more about death than anything else, and it was death they sought to bring to Malala – and almost succeeded in giving to her. But the word “Taliban” appears nowhere in the main part of Maslo’s book, the word “Islamic” is not there, and Maslo turns Malala’s story into a kind of unequal-rights-for-no-known-reason tale. This is understandable in a book for very young readers, but it creates puzzlements for its intended audience that parents will have to find ways to handle. For instance, Maslo writes that Malala “realized that women in Pakistan did not have the same rights as men.” Why not? Maslo does not say. She writes about Malala taking part in public-speaking contests at school and says that, at some point, “a new enemy came to Pakistan.” What enemy? What does this have to do with the already-existing differences between women’s and men’s rights? Again, Maslo does not say, clearly trying to avoid the word Islam or bring religion – the foundation of all the violence and viciousness in this tale – into the picture. As for Malala almost being murdered by the Islamic fanatics, all Maslo says is that “the day came when [her father] could not protect her,” and then there is a wordless two-page abstract illustration made with red, black and blue. There is not even the indication of a sound. “What happened?” is sure to be any young child’s question at this point – but Maslo does not say. She has Malala sleeping and dreaming for a week, then awakening in a British hospital and being told “that the enemy had tried to end her life.” Why? Maslo does not say. The remainder of the book, in which Malala travels the world speaking out for girls and for others held voiceless by Islamic murderers and others, is upbeat and effective, and Maslo’s illustrations give Malala an understated heroism that fits the personality of this young women (born in 1997) very well. The Author’s Note at the back of the book provides a timeline and at last uses the word Taliban to explain who the “enemy” unnamed in the main story is. Parents unfamiliar with Malala’s story will want to read this explanatory material before allowing young children to tackle the main tale on their own: Maslo’s writing is age-appropriate, but her determination not to frighten her intended audience too greatly makes Free as a Bird less clear and less understandable than it could be. Sometimes, as here, an author bends over backwards a bit too far in trying to sanitize real-world horrors in the name of bringing a tale of heroism to children who are just becoming able to read books on their own.

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